A Senate-passed $19.1 billion disaster relief bill containing aid for a variety of agricultural losses stalled in the House ahead of a weeklong congressional recess due to the lone objection of a freshman Republican.
With most House members already out of town for the Memorial Day break, Democratic leaders hoped to use a voice vote Friday to clear the bill for President Donald Trump’s signature. However, that fast-track procedure needed unanimous consent and Texas Rep. Chip Roy objected to putting the measure to a vote.
Roy, a former aide to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, complained among other things that the bill wasn’t paid for and didn’t include $4.4 billion in border security funding that Trump had requested.
“It spends $19 billion without members of Congress being present in our nation’s capital to vote on it. Secondly, it’s a bill that includes nothing to address the national emergency and humanitarian crisis we face on our southern border,” Roy said.
His objection could delay final House action on the bill until lawmakers return in June, although House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., told Agri-Pulse it was possible Democratic leaders would try to get another voice vote on the measure during a pro forma session next week.
The measure would authorize $3 billion for payments for a wide array of producers, including farmers who are unable to plant their crops this year as well as to growers whose stored corn and soybeans were damaged by flooding. Producers who lost crops to the 2018 hurricanes and wildfires also would qualify for payments.
The payments for prevented planting would especially benefit farmers who make claims for the new Market Facilitation Program that the Trump administration announced just hours before the disaster bill was released Thursday. The payments to corn, soybeans, cotton, wheat and other non-specialty crops will be based on a farmer's 2019 planted acreage.
University of Illinois economist Scott Irwin said it would mark the first time in his memory that disaster assistance has been provided for prevented-planted acres, which are already eligible for crop insurance benefits.
“Call me a cynic, but I don't think it was an accident that this provision was in a disaster bill” released shortly after the trade aid package was announced, he said in a series of tweets on Friday.
Under the bill, the combination of disaster payments and crop insurance benefits or Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP) payments would be limited to 90 percent of a farmer’s loss. Disaster payments to farmers who didn't buy crop insurance would be capped at 70 percent of their loss.
Passage of the bill had been delayed for months because of disputes between the White House and congressional Democrats over funding for Puerto Rico that Democrats wanted and border spending on which the White House ultimately relented. After congressional negotiators reached agreement with the White House on Thursday the Senate quickly passed the measure, 85-8, before leaving town for the recess.
“After President Trump and Senate Republicans delayed disaster relief for more than four months, it is deeply disappointing that House Republicans are now making disaster victims wait even longer to get the help they need,” said House Appropriations Chairman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y.
“We must pass this bicameral, bipartisan bill and we will keep working to get it through the House and onto the President’s desk.”
Georgia GOP Rep. Austin Scott expressed frustration with the delay forced by his Texas colleague. "While political games over disaster assistance continued this morning as a member from Texas blocked a disaster aid package from getting to the president's desk today, one thing is clear: This package has broad bipartisan support. It will advance when the House reconvenes and it will be signed into law by President Trump the first week of June."
Cotton growers and other producers in Scott's home state have been looking for federal assistance since Hurricane Michael hit the state last October.
The agriculture spending in the bill, including direct payments to farmers, is expected to total $5.5 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
The legislation includes a provision ensuring that industrial hemp will be eligible for whole-farm insurance policies starting in 2020. That provision was a priority for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Also included in the bill for USDA is $558 million to shore up the Emergency Conservation Program, to help farmers restore storm-damaged land, $480 million for the Emergency Forest Restoration Program, and $435 million for the Emergency Watershed Protection Program, which assists landowners and communities in restoring culverts, stream banks, levees and other infrastructure.
Read the text of the disaster aid bill here.
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